In a rare show of unity, Republican and Democratic leaders found a cause to rally around Thursday: their support for the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Nobel Peace laureate, in Washington for an 11-day Buddhist ritual, was invited to the Capitol to meet with House leaders.
His visit already has drawn criticism from China, which regards the Dalai Lama as a separatist troublemaker and bristles at any official recognition of the exiled Tibetan leader. The White House has yet to announce whether he will meet with President Barack Obama as he did, albeit in low-key fashion, on his last visit in February 2010.
At a joint news conference after Thursday's meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted how the Dalai Lama was able to bring together Democrats and Republicans, who are struggling to narrow their differences over how to bring down the hulking budget deficit.
Pelosi said that as a boy, the Dalai Lama had received a watch from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "It's a source of great pride to us that this relationship between our two countries and leaders goes back so far," she said.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, paid tribute to the Dalai Lama and his "tireless dedication to the values we all cherish."
The Dalai Lama, 76, who fled China in 1959 and is based in northern India, said he explained to the lawmakers his recent move to give up his political authority to Tibet's elected government-in-exile, which China still refuses to negotiate with. He said representative government would mean a more democratic system for Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama denies seeking independence for Tibet, saying he wants autonomy for Tibet within China. He remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Thousands of expatriate Tibetans will seek his blessing during his stay in Washington, his longest visit yet to the U.S. capital.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that China's communist-led government expressed displeasure that the Dalai Lama was received officially by a senior department official when he arrived Tuesday. She said no decision had been made whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would meet with him.
While any meetings between the Dalai Lama and Clinton or Obama would annoy China, snubbing the Tibetan leader would draw political fire on the president at home.
Lawmakers of both parties have called for the Dalai Lama to be received at the White House
Obama was criticized for not meeting the Tibetan leader when he visited Washington in October 2009, months before the president made a state visit to Beijing.